5 Ways MES Supports Quality Management in Additive Manufacturing21 July 2021
As medical, aerospace and other highly regulated industries embrace additive manufacturing, ensuring quality – both of processes and final parts – becomes critical.
However, many challenges in AM make quality assurance a difficult task. Companies that have invested in AM for production or plan to do so soon, should be aware of the risks associated with additive QA.
In this article, we’ll cover the issues that can increase the cost and complexity of additive QA and how additive MES and workflow software can alleviate some of the risks on the way to repeatable quality.
Quality management in AM: The challenges
High process variability
A multitude of parameters and factors involved in the 3D printing process makes it inherently variable, causing variation in production consistency.
The build process itself has many adjustable inputs that directly affect the ability to create a part and its final quality.
The industry is still figuring out how to eliminate variability and ensure process repeatability. More often than not, it’s done through trial and error. With this approach, companies have to deal with the cost of poor quality – expenses resulting from quality issues, such as rework and capacity and materials wasted on making scrap.
Removing this Achilles Heel of the AM process and maintaining consistency in quality vital to ensuring the adoption of AM in serial production.
Lack of AM quality standards
3D printing is still a relatively new process and many standards and certifications are still in development. The industry will need to develop comprehensive design rules, testing methods, protocols and reference data to reduce the cost and time to qualify AM materials, processes and parts.
Inefficient processes are a drain on the productivity of your AM department and the quality of the parts you manufacture. Process inefficiencies have many different sources, the key of them being a lack of accountability, information silos, inability to see real-time progress and manual activities performed on the shop floor.
Imagine a scenario where an employee manually pulls the relevant order data into a spreadsheet and then types an incorrect tolerance number. Incorrect tolerances can throw a wrench in the works, leading to a faulty part and rework.
At the same time, spreadsheets make it difficult to spot errors and fix them quickly. And when several employees have access to the same spreadsheet, it won’t be easy to identify and track changes, such as who modified what information when.
These challenges combined can be very costly for your operations. Statistically, the cost of poor quality can amount to as much as 10-15% of operations.
To manage quality efficiently, many companies turn to standalone quality management systems. Such systems can work well, but a better solution would arguably be to implement an AM production management system (also known as MES) with integrated QA functions.
When you have a single solution with integrated QA functions, you have real-time visibility into quality and eliminate the need to retype data and log in-and-out of disparate systems, making storage and access to quality data more efficient.
How MES enhances quality management in AM
Integrating quality management with an MES has many wide-reaching benefits, like standardising processes, achieving full traceability, expediting audits and digitalising QA checks.
Well-designed, standardised processes lead to high-quality products and services. Additive MES software provides the foundation for establishing a standardised additive
With MES, you can enforce the processes to be performed as planned by setting up a standardised workflow.
Take AM order submission as an example. For many organisations, this step involves people sending emails to communicate their requirements to the internal team. Sometimes, important information may be missing, which would lead to back and forth emails to get all the information together.
A more efficient way to do this would be to create a standardised interface – an ordering portal – for order submission. It allows you to standardise the information you receive from engineers by showing them the production and post-processing options you offer.
Additionally, MES software with an integrated ordering portal enables your AM team to collect relevant order information automatically, while simultaneously storing it as request tickets in a centralised backend system. In this way, you can minimise errors associated with data rekeying and the chances that crucial details will be overlooked.
Finally, standardising operations with MES provides an additional benefit for organisations with multiple AM production sites, as it guarantees everyone works in the same way across all facilities.
Traceability is one of the key boons of MES software. Additive MES software achieves traceability in the following ways:
- It uniquely labels orders and parts and units within each order, as well as material batches, AM build jobs and shipping parcels.
- It tracks all changes to order information and design files (version control).
- MES works in real time, so you have full visibility over where parts currently are, where they go next, and who is accountable for the project.
By implementing track & trace strategies at every stage of AM production, you can prioritise production efficiency while elevating AM process quality to the next level.
Aiding in audits
Traceability and the ability to store quality documentation helps reduce the time and resources spent on audits.
Paper-based data collection can be time- and labour-intensive. But an additive MES solution can automate your data collection and reporting, supporting compliance with ISO and industry-related standards, like AS9100 (aerospace), FDA and 21 CFR Part 11 (medical).
Capturing AM systems’ data
To ensure the quality of AM processes and products, it’s crucial to be able to collect data from 3D printers in real time. When you have the MES track 3D printers’ status, uptime and errors, it helps you obtain accurate information about their performance.
Having access to this data, as well as printing results (e.g. how many parts were successful vs how many failed), gives the production team a clear view of which parameters resulted in the highest-quality printing jobs.
By analysing the collected data, the team can develop proven production strategies, which ensure consistent, high-quality parts each time.
Additionally, tracking AM systems performance in real time through MES means that you can receive notifications on any deviations occurring during production. In this way, you can either adjust the parameters to prevent costly rework or stop the production to minimise material waste.
Planning and tracking the execution of QA tasks
Conducting quality checks is an important procedure in quality control. However, it’s often done manually, with a fixed set of checkboxes or printouts being the norm.
Additive MES with integrated QA features enables you to digitise this process, feeding the QA data into a centralised system automatically.
Once you define required quality checks, the software allows technicians to mark QA steps as done, as they inspect the part using a tablet-optimised MES.
To further streamline inspection, operators can also benefit from an integrated 3D viewer that allows them to visualise the part and its parameters more accurately to ensure that it meets the required specifications.
Drive additive manufacturing quality up with MES
As you scale your AM production, enforcing quality processes, while streamlining AM operations management, is what will provide a good foundation for growth.
That’s why it’s crucial to have a system in place that can synchronise production and quality management efficiently. In this way, you can drive the quality levels up, while lowering the cost of quality.
AMFG’s additive MES platform has been designed to enable manufacturers to do just that: establish scalable high-quality AM processes and control them in a way that drives continuous improvement.
If you’d like to learn more about our software and its benefits for AM production and quality management, contact our AM expert to see our software in action.
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